What Language Experts Find So Strange About Donald Trump

Emily Atkin Reporter, Climate Progress

Donald Trump talks funny. You’ve probably noticed, but can’t quite put your finger down on why. Does he use unique words? Weird rhetorical tics? Maybe it’s the way he seems to emphasize the first vowel of every word: L-ooo-ser. M-ooo-ron. Ch-iii-na.

Whatever it is, Trump is still surging in the polls, so it’s clear something about him is resonating with voters. Many have attributed this to his anti-establishment, outsider persona, and as it turns out, that also extends to his use of language. Two professional linguists told ThinkProgress that Trump is unlike other presidential candidates in almost every way in terms of his speech — his word choice, his way he tells stories, and even how he uses his hands.

We’ll be hearing a lot from Trump this week, as he literally takes center stage at the second Republican presidential debate on Wednesday. Beyond his favorite insults, here’s what the experts we talked to find particularly fascinating about Trump’s way of talking — and what that might say about why he’s so popular.

Politicians use big words. Trump does not.

When ThinkProgress asked University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Yoffe Liberman about Trump’s speech, he decided to do a rough comparison to another presidential candidate: Jeb Bush. We sent him the transcripts of both Trump and Bush’s announcement speeches, plus some press conferences and one-on-one interviews.

What he found was that Bush talks, predictably, like most politicians. His most-used words are rather big and policy-like — “strategy,” “government,” “president,” and “American” all placed in his list of top 13 words. Six out of those 13 are one syllable, like “growth” and “state.” His favorite word is “the.”

CREDIT: Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

Trump’s favorite word, however, is “I.” His fourth-favorite word is “Trump.” Eight out of his 13 favorite words are one syllable, and the two syllable words are simple — “very,” “China,” and “money.” His only three-syllable favorite word is “Mexico.”

CREDIT: Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

“These words bespeak a world of difference between the mentalities of the two men,” UPenn professor of Chinese language and literature Victor Mair commented on his colleague Liberman’s findings, which he posted on his popular blog Language Log. Later, Liberman published another post finding that, while Bush uses more complex words than Trump, Trump actually talks way more than Bush.

“Bush displays his vocabulary at a greater rate; that is, he uses a larger number of distinct word types for a given number of word tokens,” he wrote.

Trump can sound ‘incoherent.’

Word choice isn’t the only way Trump differs from his presidential candidate contemporaries. Jennifer Sclafani, an associate professor at Georgetown University who studies the construction of political identity through language, said Trump is an enigma — the “anti-politician” when it comes to talking.

“The impression from people I talk to just casually is that he comes off as incoherent, that you can’t really grasp the core of what he’s saying,” she said. “A lot of that has to do with the way he opens his answers.”

In a debate setting, Sclafani observes that most politicians begin with what’s known as discourse markers — words like “well,” “now,” “what,” and “so.” In the presidential debates before the 2012 elections, the most often-used discourse marker was “well,” most likely because it allows politicians to divert their answers away from the core of the questions. For example, if the question is, “How should we deal with the refugee crisis?” a politician might say, “well, here’s what I think is wrong with the whole middle east.”

[H]e comes off as incoherent, that you can’t really grasp the core of what he’s saying.

According to Sclafani, Trump doesn’t often do that. Usually, she said, he starts his answers with “I.” But when Trump does want to divert his answers, however, Sclafani says that’s where he gets tripped up.

For example, in the first debate, he was asked to explain why he once supported a liberal, single-payer health care system. He responded: “First of all, I’d like to just go back to one. In July of 2004, I came out strongly against the war with Iraq, because it was going to destabilize the Middle East. And I’m the only one on this stage that knew that and had the vision to say it.”

Trump was trying to illustrate that he has had stances contrary to the Republican party before, and that they were correct. But at the time, Sclafani said it came off “totally incoherent,” because he combined the discourse marker “first of all” with a complete change of subject.

“This is a case of, he’s getting a hang of these types of moves where he needs to refocus, but he does it in two different ways at once, which makes for an incoherent answer,” she said.

Trump is bad at storytelling.

Stories are good. Voters like stories. For politicians, stories can put a personal touch on complicated policy answers. So even if viewers don’t know if they agree with the policy solution, they remember whether they liked the narrative.

Mitt Romney was good at this, particularly during debates. Sclafani remembered one story from 2012, when Romney defended his stance against a federal “bailout” for Detroit automakers. Watch it here:

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There is so much good about this story linguistically, Sclafani said. “He uses a story to show himself solving a problem,” she said. “It’s very vivid. There’s a lot of imagery involved. Even if you know next to nothing about what was going on on Wall Street, it’s all these details. … It’s got orientation, it uses real people that you can imagine doing things. There’s conversation — there’s direct speech. A very successful story.”

Now, compare this to a story Trump told at the first Republican debate earlier this summer:

Trump’s story begins out of nowhere: “Border Patrol. I was at the Border last week,” he says. There’s no orientation, no setting the scene. He then says, “The people that I deal with,” changing from past to present tense. He mentions no specific conversation, no specific person. He ends with, “and that’s what’s happening whether you like it or not,” totally removed from the narrative.

“I think of that response there as a failed or missed opportunity,” Sclafani said.

Big hands make a big man.

Back in 2008, language experts began to notice something about Barack Obama — his hands.

The then-presidential candidate was consistently doing this thing where he put his index finger against his thumb and pointed down whenever he was saying something important. Deemed his “most frequent gesture” by the New York Times, Science of People’s Vanessa Edwards noted that he was “quite literally ‘making a point.'”

Obama’s “precision-grip” gesture vs. Trump’s “big hands” gesture.

Michael Lempert at the University of Michigan called this Obama’s “precision-grip gesture,” and asserted in 2011 research that this actually made Obama appear more “sharp” to the general public. Sclafani said a similar thing might happen with Donald Trump’s most frequent hand gesture — a big, open-palm, double-hand motion downward.

“People think of him as having a big personality, he’s all over the place,” Sclafani said. “Well, his fingers are also all over the place. He makes himself physically wider. Those gestures add to the perception of his character.”


Overall, when it comes to the political world, Trump’s language defies precedent. But for Sclafani, she thinks she may know where it all comes from.

“He’s turning political discourse into reality TV,” she said. “I’m sure if someone did a study on discourse structures of reality television shows, and compared it what he’s doing, there might be some overlap.”

Emily Atkin is a reporter for Climate Progress. She is a native of New York’s Hudson Valley, and holds a B.A. in Journalism from the State University of New York at New Paltz. Before joining the team at American Progress, she worked as a news-gatherer and reporter covering litigation and policy for the legal newswire Law360. Emily has also held internships with the New York Observer, the Legislative Gazette and investigative reporter Wayne Barrett.